Home Office to investigate police curbs on press freedom

The government has agreed to look into ensuring that Britain’s police better recognise press freedom following a meeting with the National Union of Journalists yesterday.

The meeting was called following widespread concern about police use of Forward Intelligence Teams to photograph and catalogue journalists attending demonstrations.

It also widespread concern among Britain’s journalists about Great Manchester Police’s use of the Terrorism Act to force freelance journalist Shiv Malik to hand over confidential notes.

NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear yesterday raised these concerns – and others – with Home Office minister Vernon Cloaker.

Afterwards he said: ‘This is a first step in trying to tackle the problems our members face. There was clear recognition on the part of the authorities that there have been genuine problems and incidents in the past.

‘We welcome the government’s commitment to work with the NUJ to find ways in which police officers can be better informed about their responsibilities to the press and how the police-media guidelines can be made to work in practice.

‘The proof will be in the coming weeks and months when we see whether the experiences of our members in dealing with the police improve and whether they are able to work free from harassment and intimidation.”

The meeting specifically addressed the question of production orders like the one used in the Malik case, through which the police can apply to a court to force a journalist to reveal confidential source material.

On this point Dear said: ‘The government has agreed to investigate whether guidance can be produced to make it clear to the police where the balance falls in relation to a journalist’s right to protect their sources.

‘We’ll be looking for this to include an emphasis on production orders being a tool of last resort and the need for them to be drafted with a specific and narrow remit. Journalistic material mustn’t be seen by the police as an easy route to intelligence gathering. That would undermine the very future of investigative journalism.”

The meeting has raised the possibility of NUJ involvement in the training and briefing of new officers, to ensure that they properly understand the role of journalists.

Dear said: ‘There’s still a long way to go in ensuring that police officers understand their responsibilities to the press. However, this is a welcome first step in trying to improve relations.

“We’ve agreed to continue to feed concerns about specific incidents in to the minister and will be watching with interest to see whether senior figures are able to improve the understanding of these issues by officers on the ground. We will continue to campaign for media freedom to be respected at all times.”

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